Green-blue worlds of wonder

The Komarnica in the north of Montenegro belongs to the Blue Heart of Europe. A dam threatens to destroy this piece of wilderness. Two young women, who have meanwhile mobilised a larger network, stand up to the hydropower lobby and fight for their river.

Wild river with paddlers Wild river with paddlers
© Montenegrinische Gesellschaft für Ökologie

 

“In the area around the Komarnica Canyon, the land is flat and there are beautiful villages. In the middle of it all, this canyon suddenly opens up and you are plunged into an absolute wilderness. There are just a few very steep paths. They lead downhill, through pristine beech forests, to another world where an overwhelming diversity of animal and plant species awaits you. Some of them do not exist anywhere else.” When Montenegrin activists Jelena Popović and Andrijana Mićanović talk about the Komarnica, it’s clear what gives them the energy to fight for this river; they love the wilderness, they love nature. Just a short time after graduating, the two biologists launched a nature conservation initiative. Now, they are seeing “Save Komarnica” gain more and more momentum.

“The Komarnica is a fantastic place”

Small waterfall

A miracle of green and blue shades: Waterfall on the Komarnica River

© Solutions4you
Young woman against a foggy background

Jelena Popović...

© Radonja Srdanović
Young woman in the mountains

... and her fellow campaigner Andrijana Mićanović love being in the nature.

© Vuk Iković

Maybe it’s her love for her grandmother that has driven Jelena Popović to become a river conservationist. One thing is for sure: Jela Tadić is proud of her granddaughter. Together with Andrijana Mićanović, Jelena launched an initiative that has long since become a household name in Montenegro. More and more people want to be part of the “Save Komarnica” movement. If she were just a few years younger, Jelena’s grandmother would certainly be getting involved too. Jela Tadić has experienced first-hand what it means to lose her home to a hydropower project. She was living in the old village of Plužine on the banks of the Piva River when the Montenegrin government had a dam built there in the 1970s. Jela's world was drowned in a reservoir, her entire village relocated. With the construction of the hydropower plant, the river became a source of pain from which the 88-year-old has never recovered. “We lived in paradise,” she often tells Jelena. “In the Piva we caught fish, with its water we quenched our thirst and watered our fields.” It's the reason why, every time Jelena visits, her grandmother asks: “Jelena, have you saved the Komarnica yet?” This river, too, is now set to be dammed, not 50 kilometres upstream from where those dramatic events on the Piva took place.

At first we were all alone

When Jelena Popović and Andrijana Mićanović talk about their initiative, it quickly becomes clear that, for them, this is about more than just one river. This is about the importance of nature itself in Montenegro. Jelena is softly spoken, but the young woman is treading the rocky path of environmental activism in Montenegro with steely determination. “Andrijana and I are very moved by the story of the Komarnica because we are biologists and this river is a fantastic place from an ecological point of view. Shortly after we graduated, there was a real boom in the destruction of nature, which is continuing to this day. When we heard about the planned reservoir on the Komarnica, there was no one else who would have fought for this river. That is when we started Save Komarnica”. At first, it was just the two of us and one other biologist. Fortunately, things have changed since then,” says the now 30-year-old.

The plans for the reservoir were nothing new; they originated back in the 1970s. Decades later, the Montenegrin government decided to resurrect them. In 2019, Andrijana and Jelena mobilised support from the Montenegrin Society for Ecology - where they are both employed today - along with two other national NGOs (KOD and the Society of Young Ecologists from Nikšić). Together, they filed a complaint against the hydropower project on the Komarnica with the Secretariat of the Bern Convention.

  • Komarnica - a river worthy of protection

    © Solutions4you

    The Komarnica River is actually protected. It has been designated at national level as a nature park and as a natural monument, and it has been nominated by the Bern Convention as an Emerald Site. The Bern Convention is one of the most important nature conservation agreements for biodiversity protection in Europe. Emerald Sites make a special contribution to the conservation of European wildlife and their natural habitats. In addition, UNESCO and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) have proposed that the Komarnica Valley be included in the Durmitor National Park World Heritage Site. Despite this, the Montenegrin government is planning to build a huge dam to generate energy on the Komarnica River. The river will be impounded by a dam wall more than 170 metres high. To date, no environmental impact assessment conforming to EU standards has been carried out. The “Save Komarnica” movement is campaigning to protect this precious river. In addition to Jelena Popović and Andrijana Mićanović, many other people are now involved in the initiative. Active in the core team are representatives of the Montenegrin Society for Ecology, organisations KOD and Nature Lovers, as well as a local resident from the municipality of Šavnik.

No one knew about the project

In its constitution, Montenegro asserts that it is “an ecological state”. How then, does that maxim fit with the sacrifice of the country's last wild rivers for energy production? “Not at all!” say Jelena Popović and Andrijana Mićanović. It’s the reason why they are making sure as many people as possible find out about the dubious Komarnica hydropower project. After all, the river is not the property of the citizens of Šavnik and Plužine - it is a natural treasure, the fate of which is a matter for everyone. At the end of March 2022, Jelena and Andrijana organised an awareness-raising event in the centre of the capital, Podgorica, which also won them supporters for their movement. “People were very interested, all the seats were taken,” reports Andrijana.

Protest camp generates positive energy

The “Save Komarnica” initiative is about developing the region in harmony with nature - something which Jelena, Andrijana and their fellow campaigners drew attention to at the beginning of May 2023. For the second time, a protest camp was held on the Komarnica. Unlike the previous year, participants came not just from Montenegro, but from a total of 17 countries, including Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, many of the Balkan states, and even the USA. In total, more than 400 river enthusiasts, conservationists, artists, scientists, kayakers, climbers and others gathered on the Komarnica. They researched and explored the rich biodiversity of the Komarnica Canyon, experienced the river landscape by boat, or took part in photo tours and attended workshops on sustainable agriculture in the region. “A lot of activists from other initiatives came to our protest camp to support us. In return, we gave them the opportunity to showcase their own campaign themes. We shared our experiences, encouraged and strengthened one another,” explains Andrijana. “It is good to feel that we are no longer alone,” she says. 

Young environmentalists in a mountain landscape

Participants of the protest camp enjoy the inspiring community at the entrance of the Komarnica Nature Park. People from as many as 17 countries came together, united by one vision: the Komarnica must continue to flow freely.

© Solutions4you

And how did local people react to the protest camp? “Unfortunately, many local residents are in favour of the reservoir. They believe the representatives of state-owned companies who are promising them jobs and new roads. With the protest camp we wanted to show people how valuable the river is, as long as it is allowed to flow freely - and just how much they would lose with the reservoir. People came from all over the world to see the Komarnica. We showed the local population how this can generate income. People taking part in the camp were accommodated by local hosts and provided with locally produced food,” says Jelena.

Several musicians on the stage

After the concert by Darko Rundek and his band, people from the audience rushed onto the stage and joined the singer in shouting: "Save the Komarnica."

© Solutions4you
Young river conservationists backstage

The young women of the campaign team are happy to see that so many people came to the concert for the Komarnica.

© Solutions4you
Applause for the Komarnica

The protest camp was brought to a close with a bang. “I was sceptical at first about whether we should put money into organising a concert. But when the time came, I knew immediately that it was the right decision,” remembers Andrijana. Darko Rundek, a popular and well-known musician in Montenegro and other Balkan countries, performed with his band in Šavnik - one of the places that stands to be massively affected by the Komarnica dam. For years, he has supported the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign and uses his concerts to draw attention to the beauty, and to the threats, facing the free-flowing rivers of the Balkans. “Darko Rundek played on the central square in Šavnik, flanked by the Komarnica and the Bukovica. The atmosphere was fabulous and you could feel the positive energy,” says Jelena. “The locals were as surprised as they were enthusiastic. They experienced for the first time how their city attracted flocks of visitors. When we said we wanted to save the Komarnica, the audience applauded. There was a lot of media attention for days after the camp.”

Conservationists from all over Montenegro came together. We danced and sang for all the natural spaces we are giving a voice to.

Jelena Popović, Save Komarnica
Turnaround in the Komarnica case?

The surprise came just a short time later. Minister of Ecology, Spatial Planning and Urban Development, Ana Novaković Đurović, announced that the reservoir would NOT be built. But the two river conservationists no longer trust what Montenegrin politicians say. “Until we have something in writing, we will continue to fight for the Komarnica. This minister said the same thing a year ago. A few days later, the concession for the Komarnica reservoir was awarded. But there is one thing that  should not be underestimated: the reservoir, and the threat it poses to people and nature, has become a topic of public debate.” Today, when Jelena's grandmother asks “Have you saved the Komarnica yet?”, the answer is: “Not yet, Grandmother, but we are no longer on our own! The story of the Komarnica is a good story.”

The author of this article, Katharina Grund, was enthusiastic about the drive of the two young biologists after the interview with Jelena Popović and Andrijana Mikanović. She can well imagine how the activists from Montenegro can inspire the people around them to protect the Komarnica.

  • Skavica - the same disaster

    © Andrey Ralev

    As part of the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign , EuroNatur - along with Riverwatch from Austria and local partners - is campaigning to protect free-flowing rivers in the Balkans. One of its focus areas is the fight against controversial large reservoir projects that are being implemented under the guise of green energy production. In addition to the Komarnica dam, this also includes the “Skavica” hydropower plant in north-eastern Albania, which is to be built with the support of US infrastructure giant Bechtel. The project would see the last free-flowing section of the Black Drin dammed, creating one of the largest reservoirs in Europe. This would result not only in the loss of an extraordinary biodiversity, but also a large part of the historically rich Dibra region - a fertile valley that has made a name for itself as a centre for ecotourism and organic farming. With the support of EuroNatur, non-governmental organisations Black Drin Association and Albanian Helsinki Committee have filed a constitutional complaint against the project. The claim has been accepted by the court. 

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